The candidates in the Scottish National Party (SNP) leadership contest should prioritise policy over independence, a leading think tank has said.
Speaking to NationalWorld after Nicola Sturgeon’s shock resignation, Philip Whyte, director of IPPR Scotland, said the leadership race provides a “real opportunity” for candidates to appeal to the wider electorate rather than just SNP voters. He explained: “The SNP is very clear on what their ultimate aim is - independence. It’s in the first line of their manifesto, so no one is going to forget that.
“But there’s a real opportunity here to focus on policy rather than constitution. Because regardless of what happens in the future in terms of further devolution, in the here and now, there are big problems Scotland is facing. And these candidates need to make clear how they plan on tackling them.”
When Sturgeon quit as both leader of the SNP and as First Minister, it launched a leadership contest - with three candidates, Humza Yousaf, Ash Regan, and Kate Forbes, so far putting in their bids. It also sparked plenty of questions about the future of the Scottish independence movement, which Sturgeon had campaigned so vigorously for.
Mr Whyte however is hopeful that this won’t be all that’s talked about by Yousaf, Regan, and Forbes in the coming weeks, pointing instead to the “significant policy priorities” that the Scottish Government has “set for itself.” Aside from independence, he said, two policies that have really come to define Sturgeon’s time in power, and which will be important for whoever succeeds her, are child poverty and climate change.
“The Scottish Government has set itself really ambitious climate change targets - trying to reach net zero five years before the rest of the UK,” he explained. “It has also set a child poverty target which near enough amounts to completely eradicating child poverty by 2030.”
“But the reality is that we’re still a way off. So even though the words and the rhetoric on these issues are stronger than in other parts of the UK, it comes to a point where that’s not enough - and there needs to be concerted and quicker action in driving forward and reaching those targets.”
This, he said, is where one of the three candidates could stand out - particularly if they look at not treating these issues as stand-alone problems. “If you invest in net zero,” he explained, “you can create more jobs - and if you ensure these are in the right places, you can put more money in people’s pockets and drive up living standards, which is a huge step towards tackling poverty.”
Whoever is chosen to succeed Sturgeon will have all this and more to grapple with - and many are bracing themselves for a period of change in Scottish politics, particularly after Ian Blackford quit as the SNP’s Westminster leader. Some change is inevitable, Mr Whyte suggested, primarily down to Sturgeon having been “such an enduring figure in politics”. So although it is “rare to see leaders survive for that long in post”, her resignation still came as “a shock to most.”
But while the leadership will be different, changing priorities will be difficult, according to Mr Whyte - given that the Scottish Parliament is still in term and the SNP “was elected on a very clear manifesto”. This means there’s also a well-established policy agenda in the Scottish Government.
“So perhaps then it becomes less a question of policy and more a question of delivery,” Mr Whyte said. “But I hope what happens moving forward is that the Scottish Government takes another look at some of the key debates in Scotland - and that the candidates think about how their policy pitches will speak to the wider electorate and get people excited about politics.”